On Common Ground: Number 9, Fall 2001

Urban Partnerships--The Scene is Changing

By Helen Faison

Interim Superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools and is the Director of the Pittsburgh Teachers Institute. The framers of the Constitution were determined not to establish a strong federal government for the new nation. Their goal was to keep government as close to the people as possible. Hence, great emphasis was placed on the importance of local control, and nowhere has this emphasis been more pervasive and deep-seated than in the field of basic education.

During the decades of the 1970s and l980s the American public became concerned that children in other nations were out-performing American children in the schools. One response was to engage the business community in partnerships with the schools. As a result, schools sought partnerships with a number of major corporations such as the telephone company, and in the case of Pittsburgh, with a large and very diverse health care community. A prestigious organization whose members included the presidents and chief operating officers of the major corporations in the city provided the funding for a new position, a coordinator of partnerships. The slogan became “a partnership for every school.”

The Board of Education welcomed the partnership efforts but expected the partners to be held at a distance. For Board members, local control, a basic tenet of public education in their view, meant control by parents and the elected members of the Board. Even the colleges and universities which prepared the teachers for the schools were viewed with suspicion.

Basic education has now become a national issue. Schools are expected to prepare their students for adulthood in communities far beyond those in which they are born and raised. The competition for jobs is no longer local; it is national and international.

States and local school districts charged with responsibility for educating children but facing the growing costs of doing so began to look to the federal government for assistance. The national government’s response was reflected in the governors’ conference convened in 1989. At the conference and during the meetings that followed, the governors participated in the development of what became the national goals of education. Since the conference, there has been a growing recognition that in a global economy, basic education which had been a state and local function can no longer be just the concern of the geographic area in which a child lives

The emerging educational needs of the entire nation and the costs imposed upon states and local districts by court decisions and federal legislation such as those that grew out of the Brown decision and the legislation related to special education placed new demands upon these governing bodies that could not be met with existing resources. To avail themselves of the resources which the federal government offered to support these new demands, the states and through them the local districts have been coerced into subscribing to the national goals of education. These goals necessitated the establishment of achievement standards, now the driving force in educational reform

The Pittsburgh Board of Education, which guards carefully its legal responsibility and authority, recognizes that the schools acting in isolation cannot provide for their students the kinds of educational experiences that a rapidly changing technological world demands. In its Strategic Implementation Plan for Restructuring the School District in 1995 and again in the 1998 revision of the plan, the Board declared its mission to be to “have all students attain a performance level that will enable them to be independent and self-sufficient and contribute responsibly to our society and ever changing world.” To achieve the mission, the Board declared its intention to focus on five areas: high standards for all students, effective and safe schools, dynamic parent/guardian community partnerships, highly qualified staff and effective volunteer partnerships, and school-based decision-making: aligning resources with student needs.

In 1998, the Board of Education and the then Superintendent of Schools accepted without hesitation the opportunity to join two community institutions, Carnegie Mellon University and Chatham College, in applying for and implementing a grant to operate a demonstration site in the Yale-New Haven project. They envisioned a teachers institute as a means of strengthening existing partnerships and an effective way of addressing the need to improve the subject content knowledge base of the experienced teachers in the district. Although it faced the possibility of future budget deficits, the School Board willingly committed the resources of its development staff to the task of raising the funds needed to match the demonstration grant provided such efforts did not adversely affect the district’s ability to raise external funds to support its other initiatives. Once the proposal for the demonstration project grant was approved principals and central office staff were encouraged to cooperate with the director in the identification of schools and teachers to participate in the project. The president and other officers of the teachers’ union quickly lent their support to the effort.

Key to school district support of the partnership that sponsors the institute was its insistence that products produced by the teachers who participate in the project address the 62 academic achievement standards for students that had been promulgated by the State Department of Education and approved by the Board of Education.

Immediately following the approval of the proposal and the initial meetings of the Steering Committee, the director met with the district’s Director of Teaching, Learning and Assessment whose staff directs the development and implementation of curriculum for the district. The purpose of the meeting was to determine what recognition the district would give to teachers’ participation in the institute. It was agreed that teachers would be granted increment credit provided that the seminars responded to the needs which the teachers themselves identified in relation to the students and the subjects which they taught and the curriculum units which they developed addressed content standards for which they were responsible. In furtherance of its satisfaction that the curriculum units developed by teachers who participated in seminars during 1999 and 2000, the first two years of the demonstration project, were directed toward student achievement of content standards for the course in which they were to be taught, the Board of Education listed The Pittsburgh Teachers Institute as an approved provider of professional development for the teachers in the district in the plan which it submitted to the State Department in compliance with Act 48. The act is new state legislation that requires all teachers and other school district employees whose positions require State Department of Education certificates to engage in continuing professional development to keep their certification active. At the conclusion of the second year of The Pittsburgh Teachers Institute, more than 70 curriculum units which address the academic standards of the school district have been submitted for approval. The teachers who prepared them have qualified for increment credit and the units are now available for use throughout the district. It is expected that the number of participants in the institute will increase substantially as Act 48 is implemented.

When it conducted its search for a new Superintendent of Schools in the year 2000, the Board of Education knew that it faced a large budget deficit for the following year. It was a deficit of such size that it could not be addressed by closing a few administrative positions at the central office or drawing on reserves or one-time savings as in past years. However, despite the concern over the prediction of the deficit, the Board of Education appointed a new superintendent who made it clear in advance that to improve the quality of teaching in the district and thereby improve the academic achievement of students the district would need to adopt and implement an agenda to address this goal.

The Pittsburgh Public Schools: Agenda for Action, prepared by the new superintendent and subsequently adopted by the Board of Education includes the following components: Accountability, the 5 R’s (reading, ’riting, ’rithmetic, reasoning, and relationships), Professional Development, Technology Integration and Governance.

In expanding on the essential role of professional development in the improvement of the schools, the new superintendent explained that “to provide students with a first-class education, the district needs a team of highly professional employees in all schools and offices.” He continued to explain that, “therefore, a comprehensive professional development plan must be designed that will provide employees with opportunities for continuous learning and improvement.”

Upon learning of the school district’s collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University and Chatham College, in the joint sponsorship of The Pittsburgh Teachers Institute, the superintendent identified the institute as an example of the kinds of partnerships that the district will continue to forge with the educational and other resources that abound in the city.

The new Chief Academic Officer who has since assumed the title of deputy superintendent, concurs with the superintendent’s assessment of the promise that the institute holds for the improvement of instruction in the district. Her support is significant, because the Teaching, Learning and Assessment Unit which provides central support and general supervision of curriculum and instruction reports to her office.

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